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How foodservice operations are tackling animal welfare

The Animal Welfare Act became a law in 1966.

This year, 52 years later, animal rights activists have disputed a provision to the 2018 farm bill brought by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) called the Protect Interstate Commerce Act that would prohibit states from passing laws regulating “agricultural products,” including farm animals. The amendment would not only prevent states from passing new laws, but it would also remove animal protections already in place. The farm bill failed to get the votes necessary to pass the House of Representatives in May, but the threat of expansive and confusing regulation continues.

Noncommercial foodservice operators are no strangers to regulation. But when it comes to procurement of animal protein, FSDs rely on diner expectations to guide them. And diners expect the meat they eat to be raised humanely and with minimal additives, regardless of the laws regulating how they were raised and harvested.

“Meat is the most resource-intensive and environmentally impactful part of our diet. It’s also one of our biggest spend categories,” says Kevin Krueger, procurement and sustainability manager for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. “I realized years ago that when I would look at a restaurant menu for the first time, I would always find myself scanning it for meat dishes to see if it told me where they came from, or if they were sustainably raised, and feeling like that told me a lot about what the restaurant’s priorities were.”

A ripple effect

And the industry is listening. In 2010, for example, 87% of cattle farmers and ranchers said they understood that their management practices affect the safety and quality of beef. In 2017, that number increased to 90%. Three percent might not seem like that much, but when you consider that approximately 80% of beef producers in the United States are family-operated, and have been for generations, that number becomes more significant.

That data, from the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, echoes that of the National Pork Board, which notes that, compared to 50 years ago, farmers are using less land and water to produce pork—and they’re doing it with a smaller carbon footprint. A recent study by the organization shows that pork farmers are using 78% less land and 41% less water than they were 50 years ago.

Regardless of the strides made within the industry, the way FSDs choose to handle consumer demand for humanely treated meat proteins can be summarized in one word: local.

“We buy all of our hamburgers from a Tennessee farm that is Global Animal Partnership Step 4-rated,” Krueger says. “We also buy some local pork and other beef items through our local food hub.”

The Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program was developed with the animal’s welfare as the primary focus. The organization defines animal welfare as including three components that “together with good management and genetics, contribute to good farm animal welfare”: health and productivity, natural living and emotional well-being.

But St. Jude doesn’t source directly from farms. From a food safety perspective, it’s hard for an operation of its size to properly audit individual farms, Krueger says: “From a logistics perspective, our campus seems to get busier every day, so we have a big incentive to reduce the number of trucks delivering, invoices to be processed and orders to be put away.”

So the hospital partnered with a local food- and farm-focused nonprofit called Memphis Tilth that consolidates all of St. Jude’s local purchasing through its “food hub.”

“I was able to work with the Memphis Tilth team to create quality and food safety standards for our local sourcing, and to begin making forward-looking commitments to buy local produce that meets those standards, which helps reduce uncertainty for local farmers and encourages them to plant more specialty crops,” Krueger says.

Slowly but surely

For Matthew Cervay, system executive chef for Geisinger Health System, Danville, Pa., part of the sustainability mission involves making small but important steps to reduce Geisinger’s carbon footprint. Cervay recently introduced a blended burger that not only helps reduce the traditional beef protein, but also “has that umami that only the mushroom can bring.”

“We’re part of the Premier GPO (group purchasing organization), a partner of US Foods,” he says. “In healthcare, we always talk about supporting our communities. It’s not always easy, being part of a GPO, to source locally. What was important to me was go hyper-regional.”

He sources button mushrooms from New Hope, Pa., and gets meat from Arctic Meat Packing in New Jersey, still close enough to be called local.

“That made sense to me. That’s what I really wanted,” he says.

And for some, it’s also simply about being on the right side of history.

“Sourcing the best ingredients that I can for my patients and my retail area is just part of my due diligence of being a chef,” Cervay says. “We’re not going to be talking about this five years from now—it’ll be the expectation.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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